Did Jesus Christ give the Sound Bite on the Mount?

The writer is pastor of congregations of the United Church of God, an International Association, in Lansing and Ann Arbor, Mich., and a regular columnist for The Journal.

By Melvin Rhodes

DEWITT, Mich.--When my wife and I lived in Ghana, West Africa, a story was told by the native people of a Ghanaian who visited Mexico. While being given a tour of Mexico City by a cab driver, he leaned over and asked the man a question.

"I keep hearing this word manana all the time," he said. "What does it mean?"

The Mexican driver replied: "Tomorrow. Maybe. Not today. Sometime." He then asked: "Do you have such a word in your country?"

The Ghanaian's response was: "No. We don't have a word like that in Ghana that conveys such a sense of urgency."

The story illustrates well that time is much a cultural matter. Waiting for hours or even days for a plane at the airport in Accra, Ghana's capital, I would hear stories from Americans passing through of how people would react back home if their plane were this late.

Many could not handle a five-minute delay. Thirty minutes and passengers could get abusive. Regular delays and the airline would go out of business.

How did I handle it? I took a book (or books, depending on the airline) to read. I never read so many books as I did in West Africa waiting, just waiting. In hot climates, time doesn't mean as much as it does in the West.

Fifteen minutes is 15 minutes anywhere in the world. But it has a radically different meaning from one culture to another. Some people have always had difficulty keeping their sermonettes to 15 minutes. In Ghana a "15-minute" sermonette could go on interminably, with the speaker none the wiser about how long he was speaking.

Six-hour sermon in Accra

Two services on holy days used to leave me exhausted. Usually I spoke only once, giving the sermon in either the morning or the afternoon. But the heat left me enervated.

My wife and children grew tired just sitting there listening.

I remember the last Pentecost we observed in Accra. We met in a hotel. Another group was already in session, with the pastor in full flow giving his sermon. When our two-hour service ended, he was still speaking. We returned from lunch two hours later to find him still giving the same sermon and the congregation still listening. He had finished by the time our second service ended, but his sermon must have been six hours long.

That would never go down in America, especially in today's America, conditioned to sound bites by television and commercials.

I remember some years ago listening to one of America's greatest commentators talking about how the average sound bite on TV lasted over seven minutes when he was doing the news back in the '60s. Today it's down to as many seconds.

As he put it, if Abraham Lincoln were to give the Gettysburg Address today, he would say: "Read my lips. No more slavery."

That would be it: easy to remember if you have to memorize it in school, but hardly conveying much depth.

Skeptical reader

It was, therefore, with some skepticism, that I read Norman Edwards' article beginning on page 3 in the April 30 issue of The Journal. Titled "Wanted: Leaders Who Will Answer," the article attempted to show from the Scriptures that Christ's preferred method of teaching was "question and answer."

Mr. Edwards' conclusion was that we should leave behind the preaching method of the past and "attempt to restore part of the teaching method used by Christ and the apostles: public questions and answers."

I do not argue that Jesus Christ and the apostles used this particular method at times and have no problem with the same method being used today. But I do question Mr. Edwards' assertion that the Sermon on the Mount lasted only 15 minutes and that Stephen's Apology (Acts 7) lasted "nine." The implication is that no sermon should last longer than these two biblical examples.

Agreed, it takes only about 15 minutes to read aloud the three chapters of Matthew that constitute the Sermon on the Mount. But was this all the time it took Christ to deliver it?

I think not. The Gospel accounts of the life of Jesus were written decades after the events themselves. If you read a newspaper account of a speech given by the president the previous evening, it will not take anywhere near as long to read the written synopsis of the speech as it would have taken to listen to it verbatim.

If somebody were to relate from memory a speech given by President Nixon 30 years ago, it would likely be even briefer. Only the highlights of the speech would be remembered. Surely such is the case with the Sermon on the Mount, written decades after it was given.

Why a mountain?

Note Matthew 5:1: "And seeing the multitudes, He went up on a mountain, and when He was seated His disciples came to Him."

The first question to ask here is why Jesus went up on a mountain. It's often been thought that He went up into a mountain to get away from the crowds. But what was to stop the people from following Him up there? And why was it that sometimes He made no effort to escape the multitude? (Remember the feeding of the 5,000.)

During the summer Israel gets really hot. During the winter it can be quite cold. The higher you go, the colder it is. Mountains are especially cold.

I think we can deduce, therefore, that this was the summer, in which case perhaps Jesus was being considerate of the crowds and went up into a mountain, where it was cooler. This would suggest far more than a 15-minute discourse. If He were only planning on speaking for 15 minutes, why bother moving?

"And when He was seated . . .": Again, why bother sitting if only for 15 minutes? In the traditional robes worn at the time, it can't have been easy sitting down or getting up. Why bother for a 15-minute sermon?

Hardly 15 minutes

Verse 2: "Then He opened His mouth and taught them . . ."

If Jesus were speaking, then of course He opened His mouth. So why bother mentioning it here?

The JFB commentary has this to say about this expression: It was "a solemn way of arousing the reader's attention, and preparing him for something weighty." Matthew Henry's commentary states: "The solemnity of His sermon is intimated in that word 'When He was set.' " This was a heavy and serious discourse, hardly one given in 15 minutes.

Rather than giving the impression that Jesus Christ was a 1990s time-conscious frenetic Californian, Matthew 14 suggests otherwise. Here we read of the feeding of the 5,000. Verses 13-15 show that Jesus had had a long day, as had all those who were with Him and the multitude that followed Him. By evening (verse 15) the people were hungry. The result was the miracle of the five loaves and two fishes.

Note the next chapter, where we read of the feeding of the 4,000 people who had had nothing to eat after continuing with Him "three days."

The apostle Paul seems to have followed in Christ's footsteps without having had His speaking ability. In Acts 20 he began speaking to a group of believers sometime after sunset on the first day of the week (Saturday night), probably after having given the sermon during the day. He continued to speak "until midnight" (verse 7), as a result of which one young man had fallen asleep and out of the window.

Stephen's witness in Acts 7 covers a lot of ground, difficult to do in nine minutes.

No one questioned

It is also interesting that not once in any of the above accounts do we see people asking questions. The Sermon on the Mount contains three solid chapters of Christ's own words, with no interruptions. No questions followed, either, though the crowd started to follow Him again as soon as He came down from the mountain.

Significantly, the first person to speak to Him asked for healing. He did not ask questions of Jesus or start an argument on some theological point. Jesus had spoken with authority (verses 28-29), which they were not used to from their religious leaders.

Again, I am not saying that it is wrong for people to ask questions. But from the scriptures above we can see there is also a time and place when there should be no interruptions, no questions asked afterwards. There is a time and a place for a long sermon.

The desire for short sermons and question-and-answer sessions has more to do with contemporary Western culture than with Scripture. People grow up conditioned to not having to concentrate for very long.

I remember the first time I went to see one of my children during a school class. I was appalled at how the kids could get up and walk around as they pleased.

This was not the case when I was at school in the '50s and '60s. You had to ask for permission to get out of your seat. You could not speak without first raising your hand. No questions were allowed without a hand first being raised.

The electronic generation finds it difficult to concentrate in every respect. Look at the length of the average modern book and compare it to a tome on a similar subject written in Victorian times.

Abridged English

Books nowadays are much shorter. Whereas Charles Dickens would spend a couple of pages describing one person's features, today a whole cast of characters can be introduced in far less space.

The PBS series The Story of English showed that William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used 34,000 words in his written works.

The average person in England in Shakespeare's time used half (17,000) of those routinely.

We moderns use about 2,000, a reflection on our deteriorating educational standards and lack of reading. Even the classics of English literature are more likely to be read in abridged editions than in their original form.

Attention deficit

Perhaps, in view of the above, we should cut the length of the sermon. I have participated in television programs produced in the U.S. Northwest that take into account present-day realities.

Whereas 20 years ago people would sit and watch a 30-minute program given by one man, today we must record programs in eight-minute segments with two or three people speaking so the attention span of the average viewer won't be strained. Between segments are commercials promoting church literature.

Testimonials and skits

In contemporary church services, short messages are interspersed with lots of music, prayers, testimonials, announcements and skits.

Like the news on television, church services have switched their emphasis to entertainment.

Some parents have given in to this trend rather than resisting it. This is the age of attention-deficit disorder, 24-hour electronic entertainment, eight-minute television segments and seven-second bites of sound.

Accordingly, pressure will come to alter the church-service format, even to limit sermons to 15 minutes, to get the message out to a new generation.

But let's not claim we are just doing what Jesus did.

Rather, recognize a sad commentary on our Western way of life, our inability to concentrate as our ancestors did for any length of time.

Ours is a cultural problem that is not even typical of the modern world at large.

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